Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore (from the album Downey to Lubbock available from Yep Roc Records)
Claims are made and territory staked out early on in Downey to Lubbock the latest release from Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Dave Alvin is the ‘wild Blues blaster from a sun-burned California town’ bringing his Stratocaster to represent Downey and Jimmie Dale Gilmore ‘the old flatlander from the Great High Plains’ stepping up to the microphone with his harmonica and west Texas wind vocals standing proud for Lubbock. Together, Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore are the musical bridge that unites Downey to Lubbock. They open the album with the title track, both Dave and Jimmie Dale sharing writing credits, with a track from Dave Alvin, “Billy the Kid and Geronimo”, celebrating another infamous pair of famous fringe riders. It is nearly one thousand miles from the beaches of California to the sands of Texas, Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore paving the way with songs the two have carried with them as treasured companions on their individual solo career paths.
Strutting comes easy on Downey to Lubbock, the tracks mirroring the movement in the title as the album offers a cut from Bluesman Brownie McGhee (“Walk On”) while Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore head back in time to the 1920’s to borrow from Memphis Jug Band with “Stealin’, Stealin’”, tribute lost musical brother Chris Gaffney as they travel into a Tex Mex sway with “The Gardens”, and look to the sky to see ghosts rising in the flames of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee – Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”. The pairing is perfect, Dave Alvin with his baritone stalking the songs as electric roadhouse rhythms and riffs climb from his guitar, Jimmie Dale Gilmore providing depth and warmth to the stories with his coyote Blues voice, acoustic guitar strums, and harmonica. Rolling waves of melody play an ode to “Silverlake” and raw rock’n’roll backs Lloyd Price’s tune “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”. Downey to Lubbock quiets to hear “K.C.Moan” and shuffles out a beat for the great San Joaquin valley with John Stewart’s “July, You’re a Woman” as Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore honor musical hero Lightnin’ Hopkins with the Blues masters track “Buddy Brown’s Blues” and remind us about priorities in the current political tsunami with The Youngblood’s hit “Get Together”.
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Kelly Willis (from the album Back Being Blue)
Her intentions were solidly in place when Kelly Willis set to recording her recent release, Back Being Blue. The album plays host to six original cuts from her own pen though the topics do not necessarily point back to the author, Kelly Willis feeling that ‘it’s not an extremely personal record. I wanted to make a fun, interesting record that leans on the influences that first inspired me to make music. I don’t think of it as even being so much about my vocals as an album about vibe. The important thing to me was to take these songs and to get them just right musically. And in my mind, I was thinking of where maybe Skeeter Davis meets Rockpile, or Marshall Crenshaw meets the Louvin Brothers’. Country and western breezes blow the rhythm lazily along for “Freewheeling”, dreamy Folk soundscapes “What the Heart Doesn’t Know” while a determined beat pushes “Only You” forward as a Country sway cradles the choices, good and bad, that live in “Fool’s Paradise”.
It has been eleven years since a solo release as Kelly Willis used her talents as a duo partner with Bruce Robison in performance and recording. Back Being Blue presents Kelly Willis in a single spotlight, Bruce Robison helping out behind the boards as producer. While heartache hovers right on the edge of Back Being Blue, Kelly Willis hears the tunes differently, stating ‘I guess the songs I write can be more sad than I think they are. The lyrics are always sad in country music. I mean, we sometimes wonder why people hire us to do weddings. We’re like, ‘Really? You wanted this? Well, okay!’ But the music, more than ever, I think, is very fun’. The title track takes looks at lost love as Back Being Blue plays a honky tonk jukebox for “Afternoon’s Gone Blind” while Kelly Willis stays on the dance floor to spin with “I’m a Lover (Not a Fighter)” and admits that day-to-day life can weigh you down in “Modern World”.
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The Mother Hips (from the album Chorus)
It has been five years since The Mother Hips delivered an album to the world, ending the cycle with their recent release, Chorus. Co-founder Tim Bluhm (guitar/vocals) acknowledges the span between recordings, stating ‘this album was a long time in the making. It’s our tenth studio album and we wanted to get it right. We needed the songs to represent not only who we are has humans and as artists, but also to represent and acknowledge our amazing fans and supporters. The Mother Hips play inclusive rock’n’roll, their songs sticking to form rather than format, opening Chorus with a nod to Jam-band flavored Southern Rock with “Clean Me Up”, offering a twin-guitar united front in “High Note Hitters”, lending a audio hand to humanity to link us together for “Meet Me on the Shore” as they strut out on ground basking in rock’n’roll sunshine with “It’s Alright”.
Logging twenty-five years into being a band, The Mother Hips met in northern California’s Chico State University in 1990, releasing their first album in 1993 and signing on the a major label while still in college, with the assistance of future-touring mate, Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes). Chorus brings the band back after a few hurdles in the years since their last release. Foregoing the plug-in-and-play model The Mother Hips have used on previous recordings, studio time watched the players listening to the music that they had put together. Tim Bluhm recalls that ‘“starting with these really fleshed out studio demos was exciting because it meant we could listen back months later with fresh ears. We could realize that a song might be more effective if we played it a little faster or sang it a little higher. It was like having a second chance to get everything just right’. A sense of the song provides “Hit Me There” with a touch of psychedelic Pop as balls-out boogie drives “Didn’t Pay the Bills”, a bit of Blues Rock propels “I Want Down Hard” along and wishes strike chords that continues to resonate throughout “It’ll Be Gone”. The Mother Hips present a reason for the Chorus album title as the San Francisco, California-based band sing out an anthem with “End of the Chorus”.
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Levi Parham (from the album It’s All Good available on Horton Records)
Adding audio mixologist to his credentials of a man of words and music, Levi Parham combines the groove of his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma with the Rhythm and Blues of the Mississippi Delta on his recent release, It’s All Good. Levi called out road trip and was joined by top shelf Tulsa players on his journey to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record It’s All Good at Portside Sound. On board as backing band and harmony were Okie musicians Paul Benjaman, Lauren Barth, John Fullbright, Jesse Aycock, Dylan Aycock, Aaron Boehler, Dustin Pittsley, Michael Staub, and Lauren Farrah channeling the echoes of predecessor albums from Derek And The Dominos, The Band and The Rolling Stones recorded in Muscle Shoals. Levi Parham brought his vision into life, offering that ‘I’ve always been a big admirer of the music that’s been made in Muscle Shoals, from Aretha Franklin to The Allman Bros., so I got this idea to bring the 'Tulsa Sound' and mix it with the 'Muscle Shoals Sound' and see what happens’.
What happened gets two thumbs up in the album title of It’s All Good as the album rides a rhythm into the rough country of OK to introduce “Badass Bob”, tenderly picks out notes to wrap around the sadness in “All the Ways I Feel for You”, sends a groove-filled postcard from a Euro tour for “Boxmeer Blues”, and puffs out its chest, strutting with rock’n’roll confidence through “My Finest Hour”. The songwriting traditions of the Southwest, particularly Levi’s native Oklahoma, are on full display in It’s All Good. A kaleidoscope of thick guitar notes revolves like the rhythm rotation that spins “Shade Me” with “Turn Your Love Around” punching its way into life to let the melody and story unravel slowly. Southern Soul is the backdrop for Levi Parham to make his request of “Kiss Me in the Morning” as he stages the cinemagraphic pull of “Borderline” on Southwestern breezes while “It’s All Good” puts a Bourbon bounce into the Dixieland stroll of its title track.
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Tim Easton (from the album Paco and the Melodic Polaroids)
On his recent release, Paco and the Melodic Polaroids, Tim Easton puts love for his longtime traveling companion, Paco, on full display. Relationships become slightly one-dimensional if limited to only the living and breathing. Real life relationships are deeper, going from two-legged humans, upgrading to four-legged with furry friends, and removing limb driven movement to include wings and fins. There is a connection between men/women and the objects around them. We have lot of contact with beds and couches, always hold a hand out to our refrigerator door, and rarely spend much time away from the driving wheel and the volume dial. The relationship between Tim and Paco is one of man and guitar. For thirty years, Paco, a Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar, has been at Tim’s side, and often in front of him between his words and the world.
The dialogue between Tim Easton and his guitar is captured clearly, Paco and the Melodic Polaroids recorded direct to lacquer, a process that foregoes tape and goes beyond analog by recording directly to vinyl. The vibration of the strings reverberates in your chest with the playing, and the message, of “Another Good Man Down” as you feel the pull of notes and strums turning the rhythm wheel in ‘Old New Straitsville Blues” while you can feel the thump from the boards under Tim Easton’s foot tapping out “Traveling Days”. The story is one of experience, the ways of the road as familiar to Tim as his guitar. After a childhood split between Ohio and Tokyo, Tim Easton became a Europe-based traveling troubadour for seven years, living in Paris, London, Madrid, Prague, Dublin prior to returning the U.S. and taking up residence in New York City, Los Angeles, Austin, Joshua Tree, CA, and Alaska before settling in Tennessee. Sharp-edged picking accents the determination of “Never Punch the Clock Again” while Paco and the Melodic Polaroids follows another traveler through “California Bars” as Tim Easton promises the party begins and ends with “Elmore James”.
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Nicki Bluhm (from the album To Rise You Gotta Fall available on Compass Records)
The entire mood backing the recording of her new release To Rise You Gotta Fall was personal for Nicki Bluhm. The stories mirrored her life, a time when she was losing hold of a marriage and of her band, The Gramblers. Opting to not get stuck in a moment, Nicki Bluhm chose the rip the band-aid off quickly model, moving from her west coast home-base to Music City, recalling that ‘Nashville was inspiring because of the all the songwriting going on here. When I would come to Nashville on writing trips it was just percolating…it was intoxicating. So I very hastily, in a matter of days, decided to move. I just had this gut feeling’. A clean slate of options appeared, Nicki Bluhm recording To Rise You Gotta Fall in Memphis, a new location, and a new producer, Matt Ross-Spang, helping her begin a new phase with the only baggage the words to the songs she took into the studio. Nicki Bluhm knew that ‘these songs are quite personal. They are the conversations I never got to have, the words I never had the chance to say, and the catharsis I wouldn’t have survived without. I began writing the songs for this record when I was in a failing marriage to a man who was not only my husband but also my musical partner, mentor, and bandmate. The earliest song written for the album is “How Do I Love You” and was essentially a plea to understand how to make the communication better in a marriage I was desperate to save. “Battlechain Rose” is a coming to terms with the reality of deception and betrayal while “To Rise You Gotta Fall” (the title track) is a more hopeful message born out of a lot of therapy, contemplation, time, self-help and healing’.
Self-inflicted accusations become mantras with a message to be listened to as To Rise You Gotta Fall reminds “It’s OK Not to Be OK” on raggedy rock’n’roll as heartbreak slows the beat for the realizations and regrets of “You Stopped Loving Me” and sets seemingly unachievable goals with “I Hate You”. Nicki details her thoughts and actions in three and four minutes snippets, stacking up the emotions and moods without sinking into melancholy. Sweet Soul music sets the pace for the final decisions of “Can’t Fool the Fool” as Nicki Bluhm rides a Country sway into “Something Really Mean” and draws the curtains on To Rise You Gotta Fall on the dreamy melody of closing cut “Last to Know”.
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The Lied To’s (from the album The Lesser of Two Evils)
When Boston, Massachusetts-based duo The Lied To’s looked around for stories to fill their second album release, The Lesser of Two Evils, the state of the world passed plenty of notes as fodder to tell the tales of perilous times. A weariness carries its weight through “Windtalker” as The Lied To’s envision a bloodline connection wrapping around the globe in “Diamond Rain”, scratch out a train-track beat to spit out harsh realities for “Cruel World”, and toss out troublesome wishes on “One String”. The secret to life is told a series of bullet points in the title track as “The Lesser of Two Evils” puts the crossroads under a microscope, The Lied To’s examining the space between the what-is and what-if’s.
Susan Levine and Doug Kwartler (The Lied To’s) met at a Folk festival as they were both finding their way out of bitter divorces and the emotional/financial wreckage left behind. First working as musical partners, they soon went beyond the stage as The Lied To’s became full-time partners in life, both bringing two kids each into the new family. Music was a starting point that brought The Lied To’s together, and the pair continue to balance and juggle family with career, borrowing freely from family life for the stories in songs, knowing that ‘like everyone else is feeling right now, except maybe the 1%, you just go about your day looking straight ahead trying to get things done. You work, pay bills, take care of your kids, have a relationship, and deal with your past…oh, and we also try to make music. The new record covers all that. While the songs are not purely autobiographical, the emotional truths definitely come from everything we've been through’. Refugees make their way across The Lesser of Two Evils, the story the same in the front seat with the couple heading to “Buffalo” as with the displaced lives in Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”. Optimism rises from the darkness on the album as The Lied To’s give it one more try for hopes with “Wishes” and find the answer is belief to the question of “What Keeps Us in This World”.
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The Pinkerton Raid (from the album Where the Wildest Spirits Fly)
Over an ever-rolling rhythm, The Pinkerton Raid offer an invitation with “Thin Place”, the story namechecking the title of their recent release, Where the Wildest Spirits Fly. The track showcases the distinctions The Pinkerton Raid use for separation of words and music. The tales on Where the Wildest Spirits Fly are short stories, the playing becoming the foundation that allows the characters to stand tall as “The House of Green” tells its history over African rock’n’roll rhythms. The Pinkerton Raid head north from their Durham, North Carolina-base to north of Boston, Mass to visit “The Boys of Lowell”, questioning modern America as a whole in “These Colors Don’t Run” and speaking to their own southern neighbors about letting go of the past with “Jefferson Davis Highway”.
Within the individual stories on Where the Wildest Spirits Fly is an emotional theme, the album relating vignettes that search for meaning in the length of a song. On album number four, The Pinkerton Raid celebrate the human race as one community, drawn together whether the back story is in an Indiana cornfield (“Windmills in the Fog”), toasting the art of giving with a beer garden beat (“Sweet Pitchers of Mercy”), or floating “Stella Maris” on rhythmic waves of guitar notes and percussion. Where the Wildest Spirits Fly makes a complete circle around the sun as The Pinkerton Raid look skyward to watch revolutionary freedom get lost in orbit on the opening cut “Meteors” and remember the place where the heart stops, closing out the album with “Home”.
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Mike Zito (from the album First Class Life available on Ruf Records)
Tattooed on his knuckles, the word ‘Blues’ is just one reminder that Mike Zito has made the right choices. Another indicator is the First Class Life Mike Zito owns, and uses as title for his recent album release. The title track is a rowdy Country Blues romp through the equally bumpy early life of Mike Zito, the tune smoothly transitioning from time in addiction to success stories. From a safe spot in the present, First Class Life looks back to the struggles that led Mike Zito to grab at the golden ring of sobriety. The weight of responsibility is the “Back Problem” that plagues Mike Zito as he draws a dividing line in love with “I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me)”, feels the weight again as “The World We Live In” slowly trudges on heavy Blues, and puts a boogie under the ways he is “Trying to Make a Living”.
The gratitude that Mike Zito has for the course his life has taken can be felt in the electrified guitar licks and sweet vocals that slide through “Mississippi Nights”. Promises broken (“Damn Shame”) and promises made (“Dying Day”) leapfrog across First Class Life as Mike Zito stitches a Koko Taylor rule about no-guitar-effects into “Mama Don’t Like No Wah-Wah”.
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Mark Huff (from the album Stars for Eyes)
The sonic touches added to the songs on Stars for Eyes take the tunes on the recent release from Mark Huff skyward. A conversational tone to the vocal delivery grounds the stories on Stars for Eyes as the title track sparkles with twinkling note patterns while breaths of beats put a chugging rhythm underneath “Albatross”, life continues as love slows the emotional blood flow in “Heart Beating Without You”, and the groove becomes a series of pecks and jabs in “Burning Letters”. The recording process for Stars for Eyes saw Mark Huff rip out the edit button when the Nashville, Tennessee-based songwriter let the instrumentation carve out its own spot around each song providing a more cinemascopic backdrop for his stories.
His personal life affected the mood on Stars for Eyes, Mark Huff recalling that ‘when I was writing many of these songs, I’d also been in a relationship—and clearly I did not get the girl, so that affected by perspective. And I knew that since I was ready to really get personal with these songs, I didn’t want it to be a typical Nashville sounding album, so I decided to work with Chad (producer Chad Brown) and to get a diverse group of musicians who could play deeply rooted music with an ambient sonic approach’. Soft rounded rolling chords of rhythm revolve around Mark Huff as he pours his heart out for “Carolina Blue”. A starkness immediately invades “I Know You Don’t Want My Love” as ambient guitar electrics flicker while Stars for Eyes lets percussion take the lead for the jazzy solemnness of “Almost Like the Blues” and makes use of a rock’n’roll beat to kick down “Prison Door” as Mark Huff asks “Nightingale” to sing its tale on a Country romp.
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